Masks, memory, and the long road to justice

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Going to a party the other night for the first time in more than a year, I was surprised at the intensity of the experience, a veritable surge of content after a valley of silence. Prior to leaving my house for the party, I struggled with anxiety; what would it feel like to encounter so many new people at once, and how would I introduce myself to them? What if I saw people I did know, and that I did not want to see; how would I navigate that situation? At the party itself, I also observed a palpable aloneness, as though invisible gauze separated myself from all the other attendees even as we drank and caroused together.

As the pandemic restrictions have lifted, there have been other situations in which these phenomena have been perceptible. For instance, eating dinner with my family at restaurants, I have sometimes been struck by moments of anxiety bordering on panic attacks; of a sudden, my feet begin tapping, my pulse quickens, and I have trouble swallowing my food. Similarly, out to in-person yoga classes, I notice that I both enter and leave the class as a ghost, someone who doesn’t know anybody, and for whom meeting others is no longer intuitive; even when the opportunity presents itself, I often smile, then avert my eyes.

It is not as though, even before the pandemic, our society’s trends toward alienation and anxiety were not in full force. Throughout my twenties, I moved from location to location, acquiring and leaving behind friends as I went; this was because I was pursuing our society’s ideal of the actualized individual, one entirely independent of—even obstinate toward—community. In possession of this identity, existential questions glare in a way that would not have been equaled in more tribal, close-knit societies; one wonders, “Who am I?” “What is the meaning of my life?” “What is my purpose?” And, of course, at the prospect of answering these questions before strangers, anxiety occurs.

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Still, it is without doubt that the pandemic has both magnified and accelerated these trends. Wearing masks, we have been physically cut off from one another, unable to read the facial cues that our species has historically used to navigate ambiguity; seeing one another through screens and sanitizing our hands after interacting, we have subtly undervalued one another, both literally and figuratively scrubbing our hands of in-person interaction’s energetic residue. In a sense, we have broadcast to one another for a year that in-person interaction is dangerous, unnecessary, or both. In other words, we have labeled ourselves—and one another—in these ways.

For me, none of this is transparently problematic, since at least some of the precautions we undertook throughout the pandemic were probably necessary, and the reason for their being was an outward expression of solidarity and care. Through masks, plexiglass barriers, and the like, we sought to demonstrate protection of the vulnerable, an environmental acknowledgement of our interconnection and humanity. If an unfortunate byproduct was that, on the psychological and ethereal levels, we became both more alone and more anxious, then so be it; that was a price to be paid for our political pact, a deeper truth we relegated to memory.

Instead, what I find problematic about masks, plexiglass barriers, and the like has to do with a pattern of thinking they represent, one found in parallel solutions to other emergent crises: this is that they risk being confused for long-term solutions while in fact constituting short-term ones, thus fortifying the status quo which caused the problem in the first place. With masks, the essence of this dynamic can be glimpsed in the popular phrase “return to normal.”

For a parallel issue which expresses the same dynamic, take climate change. With climate change, a short-term solution might involve paying a billionaire or two to launch a giant, reflective kite into the atmosphere, or to invent a carbon-sucking machine, following which humans would be able to continue polluting, consuming, and regularly traveling at great distance. So long as the problem is framed in terms of CO2 levels—and therefore human survival—anything that limits or reverses CO2 output appears to “solve” the problem; that being the case, other damaging behaviors can continue.

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Another example is racial justice, with respect to which a superficial solution might be to jail a police officer or two, found a new federal holiday, introduce some politically correct language or hiring quotas to the workplace. These measures having been implemented, a larger reckoning with history—and with psychology—can be circumvented, and the fundamental patterns of exclusion and re-traumatization left unchecked.

With both these issues, a commonality is that the actual solutions require society change at the levels of the personal, psychological, and spiritual, while the short-term, superficial solutions require only minor discomfort, all in an effort to reify—and return to—a preexisting “normal.” With the issue of climate change, the actual solution involves inquiring into and altering ourselves at the level of value, promoting different kinds of lives, educating our children in different ways, eating differently, traveling less, and so on and so forth. Furthermore, it requires a level of comfort with mystery, since it is often unclear how to get to a greener world from the industrial, capitalistic one in which we have been raised and from which our values derive. Similarly, with the issue of racial justice, the actual solution involves prolonged and uncertain confrontation of personal involvement with injustice, as well as the mutual, generative work of pioneering entirely new ways of loving, respecting one another, and seeing and speaking. By contrast, superficial solutions might reinforce some of the very systems—such as the justice system—of which the racial justice movement is critical.

I am sure you can already see the parallel with masks, with vaccines, with the entire program that Covid has introduced to our lives. When it comes to health crises, are we going to wall ourselves off from one another, to sanitize our existence, to amplify already unhealthy trends toward isolation and anxiety, all in the effort of a “return to normal”? Alternately, are we going to take the opportunity to ask what it is that health actually means? To me, health itself intersects with the preceding issues, hinging on the multi-generational, collective project to usher in a world in which people can feel safe, loved, respected, and supported. As with the issues of climate change and racial justice, it is often amorphous what steps need to be taken to actualize such a world; however, what is always clear is that such a world is possible, and that it requires reforms at the levels of the economic, the educational, the spiritual, the romantic, the social. That is, the project of meaningfully changing one thing requires we change everything at once.

Perhaps a broad takeaway from this writing is that the problem is ultimately not with masks themselves—nor with any parallel, superficial solution for any other issue—but rather with forgetting the long-term solutions toward which these temporary, superficial solutions strive. Sometimes it may be necessary to wear a mask or take a vaccine, as in the case of the last year; similarly, sometimes it may be necessary to jail a police officer, or to build a sea wall around an endangered state. However, in the long-run it is better to cultivate the health of a population, in order that masks and vaccines are not necessary; in the long-run it is better to uplift marginalized populations, in order that fewer encounters with police occur, and to heal the soil so that temperature changes are reversed. Rather than celebrating a so-called quick-fix as the lasting solution, thus achieving a “return to normal,” it is better to question normal’s centrality, beginning the process of working toward a different normal entirely.

And this is why, if masks, plexiglass barriers, hand sanitizer, and the like have relegated unity to the level of memory, that level is so important: that is because memory is where the visions live. Memory is the source from which, even as we witness temporary solutions which sometimes feel at odds with our long-term aims, we draw strength; it is the source from which, as we continue intergenerational work that sometimes feels fruitless, we cull faith. In just the same way that, even through the muffling and ambiguity that a mask introduces, a voice can be heard, even through the mystifying, confounding process of navigating practical solutions to impractical problems, a vision, and a process, can be discerned. That is, even while the mask is worn, even while the screen enshrouds us, even while the residue of the loneliness drips from our skin: the world of true health still beckons, waiting to be born.

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